The Goddess endures. She is more powerful than any attempts to confine her to any one doctrine, and she changes both her form and her name as she adapts to circumstances. She has been elevated to become the principal icon of the Catholic Church, for the Church is itself the unwitting servant of the Goddess. To see her in another form we need look no further than that familiar icon, not of religion, but of art: Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus. Emerging gracefully from the sea foam, Venus is herself the Roman version of the Ancient Greek Aphrodite, who is always associated with the sea which gave her birth.
So our quest after the Star has already brought us to Ancient Greece. Can we journey back even further? The Babylonian goddess Ishtar is also linked to a star – or at least, what the Ancients thought of as a star, but which we know to be a planet, a ‘wandering star’. Ishtar was absorbed into Greek culture as Astarte, who in turn became Aphrodite/Venus. The morning and the evening star are both the planet Venus, and the ancients saw Ishtar as being graced with both a five-pointed and an eight-pointed star. The five-pointed star is now familiar to us as the pentagram, but where does the eight-pointed star come from? The Babylonians observed the heavens meticulously, and they must have noted that the planet Venus seems to follow a path through the heavens that traces out a five-pointed pathway – over exactly an eight-year period. So Ishtar has her star. But what of the sea?
The old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah mentions a goddess described as the Queen of Heaven – the goddess Asherah, who in ancient times was known as the ‘Lady of the sea’, or ‘She who treads on the sea’. Asherah was the consort of Yahweh, in the time before Judaism became monotheistic in its beliefs, and although the attempts to obliterate the goddess from scripture were largely successful, we can still catch glimpses of her in Jeremiah’s phrase – and also in the opening words of Genesis, which in the original Hebrew literally read: “In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth.”
At the beginnings of civilization Mesopotamian clay tablets record the appearance of a brightly-shining light in the heavens – what we now know to be a supernova, an exploding star. Apparently this light was so bright that it was visible during the hours of daylight. And it made its sudden and dramatic appearance low down on the eastern horizon, which is where it stayed. To the dwellers overlooking what is now the Persian Gulf it would have appeared as if this star was emerging from the sea, and these ancient cultures do feature deities which came out of the sea. Even in Ancient Egypt, the title given to Horus, the child of Isis and Osiris, was ‘Horus-on-the-Horizon’. This spectacular heavenly event apparently had a great impact on human awareness, and much in the way of culture and learning began at that time, almost as if this stellar appearance had triggered something in the human imagination.
Stella Maris – Star of the Sea. This icon of both the church, of art, and of human culture takes us right back to the very dawn of civilization, and continues to surface in whatever form the Goddess finds appropriate to communicate with us. And what of Mary? Her true origins are in her very name, for Mary is derived from ‘Mare’, meaning ‘The Sea’.